Along with Chan’s Chinese Cuisine and Ming’s Bistro, Lam’s Garden has long been a popular draw for downtown dim sum savants. But when the excitable midday rush subsides and the rattling pushcarts are stowed, the restaurant mainly sits half-empty (or half-full, for you positive types). The kitchen is stoked and high-spirited during dim sum service, but maintaining the same high level of passion and quality can be a challenging endeavor when diners are ordering from a hundred-item-plus menu of Chinese-American staples. Dishes, expectedly, run the gamut. While many cross the threshold into nom-nom territory, just as many elicit a meh.
Lam’s strip-mall setting belies the inside, where retro furnishings fuse with classic chinoiserie to create a Nixon-era design riot, industrial green carpet and all. Large tanks near the entrance teem with striped bass and tilapia shimmying to the sounds of Prince and Katy Perry. We made a mental note of the tank crowded with lobsters and crabs, and took our place in a booth illuminated by what seemed to be interrogation lamps, awaiting one of the bow-tied servers to amble by and take our drink order.
We sipped oolong tea as we pored over the menu, trying to process the myriad options over the crunch of complimentary wonton strips; we ultimately decided to stick with the trad Chinese-restaurant experience and start with hot and sour soup ($7.95). We regretted the lack of scallions, but downed the vinegar-punched, peppery soup textured with water chestnut slivers and pork bits just the same. Stellar? Hardly, but it was pleasant enough. Another item straddling the nom-nom/meh divide was the char shu ding ($8.95) – a hodgepodge of diced pork sautéed in a tangy sauce with mushrooms and the requisite Chinese vegetables. A topping of toasted almonds added a layer of flavor complexity to this otherwise staid dish.
Wor shu op, steamed-then-fried boneless duckling ($9.95), finally gave us cause to celebrate. The crisp, rectangular-hacked morsels sat atop a medley of mixed Chinese vegetables, augmented by a garlicky and faintly sweet brown sauce. Seeing the bondaged lobsters upon entering compelled us to liberate an oppressed crustacean, albeit at the hefty cost of $30.95; we ordered it sautéed in a wok with ginger and scallions when it dawned on us that this was the week leading up to Chinese New Year. The result: an extraordinarily shiny lobster, properly lobotomized, hacked and re-assembled in an anatomically correct fashion. “Shiny food is always better food,” declared my dining companion, and the mood turned festive as we picked the lustrous langoustine clean.
We drew the stares of a few Chinese families sitting around Lazy Susans – the number of dishes assembled on our table would’ve completely smothered their inadequate rotating gyres. Sure, we may have lamented the quality of some of the dishes we sampled – this isn’t Iron Chef territory – but at Lam’s Garden, variety is the clearly the spice of life.
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